Journalists have described the scene in Texas as “chaos,” but any shooting scene is chaos, and that holds especially true when the scale is enlarged to a war zone. In a very real sense, armies are in the business of overcoming that chaos. The daily routine of garrison life — “police calls” to gather litter, formations to account for personnel, movement and fitness training as a unit, or motor pool maintenance — is a constant struggle against entropy. It instills a discipline that is meant to keep soldiers working through the frenzied adrenaline of a firefight.
But rigorous rank and discipline can also engender resentment and rage. We still don’t know yet what problems Ivan Lopez decided to resolve with gunfire. His four months in Iraq three years ago do not explain what he did, and it would be dangerous to dismiss this tragedy as a lesson on the moral injury of war. Lopez was not at war, and had not been at war for a long time, but he decided to start and end his own war, all by himself. Whatever he was angry about, it was in that motor pool, not the Middle East. So I will leave it to others to talk about what this all means for the politics of guns and violence. Instead of reading a political or social meaning into what happened, I’d rather take this opportunity to write about the history of gun violence in and around Fort Hood, because I was there for some of it, and it feels important to talk about that right now.
Military life is tough and dangerous on a good day, and an Army motor pool can easily become a high-stress environment on a bad day. Safety is paramount in the military environment, and nowhere is that more true than a sun-hot concrete pad full of heavy armored vehicles and trucks. In fact, it was during safety training in a motor pool garage at Fort Hood that I learned to keep my distance from a suicidal soldier, because someone ready to take his own life is also very likely to commit homicide, too.
I was stationed at Fort Hood from 1996 to 1999. Five years before I arrived at the post, George Hennard had crashed his pickup truck into a Luby’s Cafeteria just a few miles from the front gate, then shot fifty people with pistols, killing 23 of them. That massacre quickly became a rallying cry for concealed carry laws across the United States, an early indication of how the NRA and the gun industry would react to every new mass shooting with the now-common refrain that more guns will make us all safer.
Shortly after I arrived at the post, a soldier preparing for his next-day deployment told his roommate’s girlfriend to leave their barracks room so he could get some sleep. She returned an hour later with her father’s revolver and shot him dead. Command reacted to the incident by reinstating the Charge of Quarters (CQ) system, a night watch for every barracks on the post that required each soldier to take an occasional turn staying awake til the dawn. Base entrances that had previously been wide open were now staffed by MPs. That was also the year that terrorists bombed Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen American service members immediately. A classmate of mine from the language school died later of his injuries. For us, there was an oppressive sense of being under siege. Nobody said it, but everyone could feel it.
Then in June of 1997, while I was deployed to Kuwait, the FBI arrested two men at a campground in Texas who were planning to assault Fort Hood.
The dramatic arrest was the culmination of a four-month undercover investigation of a small, hard-core militia faction that officials believe was planning a spree of hit-and-run killings at U.S. military installations. Members of the group, which has no name, apparently believe that United Nations troops are housed at these bases in preparation for the imposition of a sinister New World Order.
Seven individuals whom law enforcement official said are connected with the fringe group are being held in four states, including Wisconsin. They are charged with weapons violations. It is unclear if the joint federal-state investigation is ongoing, and whether it will yield new charges or more arrests.
This is shudder-inducing to talk about, because my unit was staffed almost entirely by linguists, and we were always bantering in our target tongues around the barracks. This had led to some strange rumors about foreigners in our building, and whenever I listened to Alex Jones on WJFK out of Austin ranting about United Nations soldiers secretly housed on American military bases, I would laugh. But I stopped laughing when I returned from deployment, learned what had happened, and saw that an MP company had been rehoused on our battalion grounds.
What made that episode all the more frustrating was that while in Kuwait, our unit had been practicing “force protection measures” against an Al Qaeda cell in Jahara. The embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania were still a year down the road, and the USS Cole bombing was two years away, but as a result of my access to classified information as well as my own reading, I knew Al Qaeda was steadily becoming a threat, and that ignoring their black flags would only embolden them to get America’s attention in the worst way possible.
So when Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood in 2009, killing 13 and wounding 31, I have to say I wasn’t surprised. More patrols at the borders of the base didn’t stop him, and neither did all those soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most upsetting thing about Hasan’s treacherous rampage was that he was supposed to be helping soldiers like Ivan Lopez with their problems — especially their “moral injuries” — so that they don’t do what both men have now done. Who watches the watchers, and who helps the helpers?
We now live in the age of the suicide shooter. Motivations and proximate causes may vary, but the essential madness is the same. Men (they are all male, so far, but that will change) simply explode into gunfire with the intention of killing themselves, and all of us, as revenge for whatever sleights or hypocrisies or ego bruises they have received. They feel as if it is the end of the world, therefore we all deserve to see the end of ours as well. George Hennard’s raving about the betrayals of women as he shot strangers is not really very different from Nidal Hasan raving about America’s war against Islam while murdering the soldiers he was supposed to serve. Neither of them was more justified than the girl who shot her boyfriend’s roommate.
Maybe it really doesn’t matter what we do, because there simply is no protection from the suicide shooter (or bomber, depending on the milieu). Concealed weapons only offer an illusion of safety to those who carry them. Arming yourself against the suicide shooter seems to make sense; it feels right, but statistics say that right-feeling is a phantom. Ivan Lopez was possibly thinking that same way when he bought his gun: I need this for self-defense. I might need to stop a mass shooting. Fort Hood has plenty of guns and ammunition — enough for a war — but if America’s biggest military base can’t prevent a suicide shooter from exploding, then every one of us is vulnerable to the phenomenon, armed or not. And no matter how twisted or crazed or banal the motivation behind the bullets may be, it doesn’t make them any more deadly — or less tragic.